About the author: Douglas T. (Tim) Hall is Professor Emeritus, Management & Organizations at Boston University. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Warren Bennis used to comment that the future isn’t what it used to be. He was talking in the context of the rapidity of social change, where he noted that even the old reliable constants have become galloping variables. This is especially true in this current era of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic chaos, social and familial upheavals, and radical restructuring of daily living and working.
And it is even more so in relation to retirement. Many people are being forced out of their jobs and into retirement earlier than expected, including many who through job loss have been thrust into a liminal state – a time of limbo where they don’t know what will come next, whether they will even find re-employment or if this is the end of their career. Thus, we are seeing more of a blurring of the boundary between employment and retirement.
Ironically, one of the surprisingly large number of “silver linings” that we are seeing in this pandemic period is that many people are reacting to this “Covid limbo” with the attitude that, “I might as well do something useful.” For example, this morning on the news I saw a report of two unemployed men who are using their time at home to stage a cookie bake-off, pitting each person’s family recipe against the other, and producing their cookies in quantity to present to show gratitude to front-line health workers and first responders. The cookies have been much appreciated, and the effort is getting wide media attention, and it has inspired many other new bakers to follow suit, with over 1000 members signed up in their Facebook organization, “Cookies for Caregivers,” with over 18,000 cookies baked so far. At this point there has been so much interest in the distribution of the cookies that it is not really clear who actually won the prize for the best cookies!
This blurring of the boundary between work and retirement follows naturally from the evolution over the last several decades in the understanding of how a career develops over time. In the mid-20th century, a career was seen as spanning a lifetime of work, with a career-long series of stages, including periods such as exploration, trial, establishment, maintenance, and decline (Super, 1957.) And then, with the rapid economic and social changes of the late 20th century, with equivalent rapid changes in people’s work lives, we began to think of the career not as a lifelong venture, but rather a sequence of much shorter learning cycles, as the person moved from one kind of work experience to another. The cycles still contained the same activities (exploration, trial, establishment, etc.), but the cycles were much shorter, and there were more of them as the work experiences became more varied (Super, 1990; Hall, 2002). And it also became clearer that there was more room for personal agency and identity change, as the person was necessarily required to be more active in redesigning and reconstructing the career, to adapt better to the changing environment (Savickas, 1997.)
And the idea of learning cycles applies to retirement, as well as to working experiences. As Wang, Hall, & Waters (2014) showed, one can think of the transition into retirement as a series of learning cycles, where the person explores and experiments with new activities, interests, and roles, in a way that gradually, after repeated iterations of the cycle, transforms their identities and overall sense of self. (See Figure 1.)
Wang and colleagues describe this transition as “identity-based retirement,” a psychosocial process of identity transition and search for meaning, which plays out as follows:
“Retirement is a recursive process of intentions, actions, and outcomes, through which new behaviors generalize to involvement in new roles, and new subidentities associated with retirement (Hall, 1971, 2002). This process entails communicating internally with the self and externally with significant others. Factors in the individual (self-comparisons and protean career orientation) and relational factors (developmental networks and reference groups) influence the identity and goal-setting process, making the person both the agent and the target of the change process that is retirement. Thus, the necessity to be self-anchored during retirement gives people the opportunity to find personal meaning in ways that step outside of their previous working lives.” (Wang, Hall & Waters, 2014, 1)
In retirement, the person has to replace the work role, which had been occupying a massive portion of the person’s life space or sense of self, with something else. They need to answer the question, what will replace work? This usually entails creating entirely new identities or modifying existing identities (as when the person uses retirement as an opportunity to invest more deeply in existing activities and interests, such as volunteer roles or hobbies.) For people who have the luxury of being able to retire, they can ask the question, what do I really want to do? This gets at the issue that Herb Shepard (1984) posed as, what is a life worth living? The goal for many people, said Shepard, was to explore and discover what for them is the “path with a heart,” a life that is rich in personal meaning. What the person is really doing, as Hall, Feldman, & Kim (2013) described it, is trying out a new identity, or identities, and trying to figure out who is the real me?
Baumeister and colleagues (Baumeister, 1991; Baumeister & Vohs, 2002) have helped us here by identifying four basic needs that must be met in the person’s quest for meaning: 1) purpose, in relation to achieving goals and feeling fulfilled: 2) efficacy, making a difference in the world, through work on those goals; 3) justification,through one’s prized values;and 4) self-worth, gained through personal achievement or esteem from others. Satisfying these four needs would lead a person to experience feelings of psychological success.
Another way to explore what activities would hold meaning for oneself is provided by Father Michael Himes, a theology professor at Boston College. He says that a good way to explore personal meaning is to find your own answers to three questions: 1) What are you good at? This gets at your skills and abilities. 2) What gives you joy? This gets you in touch with your most deeply-held values. And, 3) what does the world need? This deals with opportunities and needs in the world for you to make a difference. There is clear overlap between Father Himes’s questions and the first three of Baumeister’s sources of meaning, and his fourth need, self-worth, brings in the extent to which you are successful in achieving results in terms of your own or others’ goals. In terms of the current language of careers scholars, when a person feels they have done well, either by Baumeister’s or Himes’s criteria, they would experience a high level of subjective (or psychological) success (Hall, 2002; Hall & Chandler, 2004.)
I would argue that the needs and questions offered by Baumeister and Himes are just as useful for planning retirement as for planning careers. They offer good guidelines for making the most of one’s resources at this mature life stage.
And although they are definitely useful for maximizing the blessings of good health and a cozy retirement nest egg, they are even more important if a person is not blessed with generous financial resources or excellent health, to help them use even limited personal health and monetary resources more efficiently and effectively. A strong awareness of one’s own needs, values, skills, and opportunities, plus the adaptability to apply them to smart and effective action, can make the difference between floundering and progressing confidently on one’s path with a heart. As the old saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.
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